Charles Bukowski 1920–1994
(Full name Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr.) American poet, novelist, and essayist
Charles Bukowski was one of the most individual poets of the post-modern age. Influenced by Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound, his poetry reflected both the despair of the 1950s' Beat movement and the rebelliousness of the protesters of the 1960s. Although Bukowski lived most of his life in California, he did not belong to or associate with any of the literary circles of Los Angeles or San Francisco, such as the Beats or the Bay Area school. He was a lifelong outsider who mocked the pretensions of the literary elite and developed his own freewheeling, raw, and belligerent style as a means of expressing his dissatisfaction with traditional, middle-class morals and values. His main character-type (which is considered to be a self-portrait), the hard-drinking, womanizing, tough-talking man who associated with the "little people" in bars, race tracks and cheap hotels, came to represent the "Bukowski image" of the isolated individual at odds with society. Such "shock" poetry made Bukowski a seminal figure in underground literature. Within the scholarly community, however, little attention has been given to his poetry and prose.
Born in Andernach, Germany in 1920, Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr. was the only child of an American soldier and a German mother. The family immigrated to Los Angeles in 1922, and settled in a middle-class neighborhood, where Bukowski was teased by the other children because of his German heritage, making him feel as though he did not belong. Bukowski's father dominated his early life, controlling the household by way of unbreakable rules, reinforced with a strap or a ruler, that were imposed to maintain the façade of middle-class respectability. Bukowski hated his father and all that he represented: the economic and emotional success supposedly offered in return for hard work and patriotism: the American dream. Bukowski's disdain for his father and the lifestyle he embodied is prevalent in all of his poetry and fiction, as well as in his subsequent anti-authoritarian lifestyle. The beginning of the Depression coincided with Bukowski's entering high school, intensifying his father's abusive and tyrannical nature, and driving the young Bukowski to retreat into alcohol abuse. Bukowski attended Los Angeles City College from 1939 to 1941, but dropped out and spent a decade working at menial jobs while struggling with alcoholism. After being hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer in 1955, he curbed his alcoholism and turned to writing poetry.
From the late 1950s onward, Bukowski developed his distinctive montage style and published several long prose pieces in underground literary magazines. These experiments resulted in the irregular, disjointed, and fragmented form seen in Notes of a Dirty Old Man, and helped Bukowski to define his literary position as an arrogant, anarchistic, and defiant anti-hero aligned against the literary elite. The late 1960s and the early 1970s was a very productive and creative time for Bukowski, and much of the work produced during this time formed the basis for subsequent books, including Confessions of a Man Insane Enough to Live with Beasts; Erections, Ejaculations, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness; and South of No North. The 70s saw a tremendous increase in his readership and a growing reputation. Focusing on longer fiction, Bukowski produced a number of novels and memoirs in a type of transmogrified autobiographical narrative similar to Kerouac's. In 1987, his novel, Barfly, was made into a movie starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, for which he wrote the screenplay. He later based a novel, Hollywood, on his experiences. Bukowski continued to write prolifically: his 1992 poetry collection The Last Night of the Earth Poems is over four hundred pages long. Bukowski died of leukemia in 1994.
Despite the number of Bukowski's early chapbooks, it was not until the collections It Catches My Heart in Its Hands (1963) and Crucifix in a Deathhand (1965) were published in the early 1960s that his poetry attracted critical attention. In his preface to Crucifix in a Deathhand, critic John William Corrington characterizes Bukowski's poetry as "the spoken voice nailed to paper." Bukowski's reputation grew as his essays and short fiction were collected and published in Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969). His first novel, Post Office (1971), became a counter-cultural classic and helped to establish the "Bukowski image". The transformation of his novel Barfly from a novel into a successful film helped bring Bukowski to the attention of the younger "MTV" generation and again expanded his readership. Bukowski wrote prolifically throughout his life, and published poetry, short stories, and novels in underground journals and small presses. With the publication of Septuagenarian Stew (1990) and The Last Night of the Earth Poems (1992) came grudging acknowledgement by mainstream critics that Bukowski had earned a place in the literary canon. At the close of his life, then, Bukowski was perceived by the bourgeois critics he opposed as the patriarch and appointed spokesman of the newest generation of anti-establishment writers.
While small presses, literary magazines, and underground journals have published and reviewed Bukowski's work since the 1950s, academic critics and anthologists have largely ignored him. This is due in part to his producing a large number of small chapbooks, often containing only one longer work or a few short poems, rather than fulllength books. Other factors influencing the critical neglect of his work include his subject matter and his language, both portraying drunks, bums, and down-and-outs who are street wise and trashy. It is precisely these qualities that has earned Bukowski his large following that cuts across generation lines and includes predominantly nonacademic readers with eclectic and anti-establishment tastes. While his work has attracted such a diverse readership and a generation of imitators, acceptance and praise from the literary or academic establishments has been slow in coming, as Bukowski is seen as a writer of quantity not quality. His death in 1994 at the age of 74 has brought about the re-issuing of many of his books as well as a reappraisal of his position within the framework of midto-late-twentieth century American poetry.